When it comes to what testers should focus on, people always say you have to think like a user. I used to think I was good at doing that—until I started actually sitting next to users.
Now I know there are all kinds of questions that I should think about more often as a tester. In what kind of physical environment do users use the application? What kind of pressure is affecting them when they try to solve their problems with the application? What frustrates them? What do they value?
All these questions are easier to answer if you're able to sit next to the people who use your application in their everyday environments. I’d like to share what my experiences sitting next to users have taught me about how our users think, how our applications meet their needs, and what you should consider when it comes to your users’ interactions with your product.
Sit Down with the User
I work at an insurance company in Finland as a test specialist in the IT claims solutions unit. We develop applications (some for the computer, others for the web) that deal with claims our customers report. This includes applications that our internal claim advisors use to serve our customers.
These internal applications are the ones I'm able to observe when I sit next to our claim advisers. The advisers use the apps, for example, when they try to find information about the customer or when they are registering a claim on behalf of a customer. While some of the applications they use on a daily basis are developed by our unit, many are developed by other units or by external vendors.
In addition to testers, our developers, managers, and team leaders are all encouraged to sit next to our users at least once a year. I’ve gotten to do that three times in the last six months. It's easy to schedule a session to sit next to a claim adviser. If they are on the same city as I am, the session can be scheduled for the next day. I usually observe an adviser’s work for approximately two hours. I’ve found it to be a good length of time, as it can be exhausting to focus longer and maintain the ability to make observations, at least without breaks.
Because a major portion of the claim adviser’s time goes to answering calls from customers, I also wear a headset so I can hear the conversation (although not comment myself, as I'm muted) and understand better what's happening. (I am bound by professional confidentiality, so any customer-related information is not written down or talked about outside the session.) In between the calls I'm usually asking the adviser clarifying questions and listening to how they describe the challenges they face with our applications.
When I sit next to the claim advisers, I begin making observations immediately.
I first pay attention to their work environment. In one of the sessions, I noticed that the user had two external monitors that were quite small—perhaps seventeen inches. But I noticed that her colleague had only one external monitor, which was twenty-seven inches. This was useful information for an application we later developed because I knew to pay extra attention to testing it with different screen sizes.